Film review by: Witney Seibold
In “The Wrestler,” screenwriter Robert Siegel gave us a portrait of a little boy’s masculine fantasy brought mercilessly down to earth; the titular wrestler had fallen far since his glory days, but was relatively happy living in squalor in a trailer, and working in a grocery store in between low-rent wrestling matches.
With his directorial debut, “Big Fan,” Siegel’s M.O. seems to becoming clearer, i.e.: He seeks to explode all American masculine myths, from wrestlers to sports heroes. “Big Fan,” however, does not depict the career trajectory of a spoiled football player, but the football player’s biggest fan Paul Aufiero (comedian Patton Oswalt). Is the world’s biggest New York Giants fan. He lives with his mother, works in a ticket booth in a parking garage, and lives for the moments when he calls into late-night sports talk radio shows in order to “show up” the Philadelphia fans. If you’ve ever listened to sports radio, you’re aware of the entire subculture that lives there. People form friendships, express animosity, display wit, and live or die by the ridicule of other callers. These shows are about pride first, and sports are a distant second.
There are no women in Paul’s life other than his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) who berates him for having no life. He has no porn, and going on a date is the furthest thing from his mind. Paul’s brother (Gino Cafarelli, who looks a little bit like Oswalt) is an ambulance-chasing shyster. Paul’s only friend is Sal (Kevin Corrigan), who is one of those people who you would not be friends with, had you not shared an intense passion for something. He exists in Paul’s life so he’ll have someone to talk football with.
Paul lives in near-poverty. Siegel does a good job of portraying a certain flavor of poor, white trash existence, mostly exemplified by Paul’s brother’s wife (Serafina Fiore), who is over-tanned, overdressed, and has so many breast implants and collagen injections she hardly looks human anymore. I wish, though, that Siegel had not lingered so fetishistically on certain things. There’s a scene in which Paul retires to his tiny bedroom to change his clothes. When Paul drops his pants, the camera tastefully dips to show his sagging white briefs. Why did we just see Patton Oswalt in his underwear? To squeeze a few more drops of pathos from the audience, I suppose.
One evening, Paul and Sal spot Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), their favorite quarterback, gassing up his car in their neighborhood. They follow him to a strip club in Manhattan where they manage to work up the courage to approach him. He intuits that he has been followed, and, perhaps overreacting, beats Paul into a three-day coma.
Upon awakening, Paul is faced with a new dilemma: does he turn Bishop over to the police, sue, get millions, and get a leg up in life? Or does he keep his mouth shut, and allow his favorite player to continue playing? For Paul, this issue is a no-brainer, he will choose the latter. Unfortunately, this invokes the ire of his mother, his brother, a local cop (Matt Servitto), and welcomes a barrage of on-air insults from talk-show caller Philadelphia Phil (the voice of Michael Rapaport).
Is Paul pathetic? Yes. Is Paul happy? I would say he is. He has chosen his identity: that of The World’s Biggest Giants Fan. So much of himself is invested in his favorite football team, that any thought of change is not even conceivable to him. I think this kind of person is common in America. People who love football or baseball. People who love certain film directors or genres of film. People who become their hobbies. As a teenager, a lot of who I was was wrapped up in my favorite TV shows. Siegel is wonderfully canny in his ability to take us into Paul’s world. Like I said, I think he would have benefited from portraying Paul in a less pathetic light, but, nonetheless, Paul is a believable and real character.
One major complaint I may have about “Big Fan” is its climax. I will not tell you what happens, but I will tell you that the film begins to have a kind of sickly velocity toward a dramatic, violent confrontation. This climax lingers for far too long, and after a while, I began to feel manipulated.
I am familiar with Patton Oswalt as a stand-up comedian, but I have not been exposed to much of his acting (other than his voice work in “Ratatouille”). In “Big Fan,” it took a few scenes for his performance to grow on me (it was hard to separate the actor from his performance), but by the time he starts stalking his football hero, I could see the real obsession in his eyes, and could really get behind him. Oswalt is very good.